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The Importance of Self-Care for Activists

By: Shandre Delaney

Source: Law @ the Margins

Shandre Delaney is a prison abolitionist. Her son, Carrington Keys, was released from prison on May 15, 2018, after serving 20 years. Keys spent 10 of those years in solitary confinement. Since then, Delaney has become a vocal advocate for her son and all prisoners. She explores the necessity of self-care for activists through a series of interviews with other advocates.


To me, activism is an act of commitment to your community or a specific category of people. It can be a 24-hour job that is unpaid and undercompensated. It takes a toll on the health, and sometimes the psyche, of those whose ambition is to help others. Being a woman and an activist requires double duty, since you may not only be a caregiver for your family but also the sole provider. This work is not for the faint and weary. It is never 9 to 5 or part-time. It is a constant, on-call duty that is hard to separate from without feeling neglectful.  

For nearly 20 years, I spent most of my time fighting for my son’s survival in prison and his eventual freedom. During that time, I supported my son and other prisoners, and organized a number of campaigns. Every year, every day, and every hour that my son was incarcerated, I was impacted mentally and physically. Because of the prison’s constant harassment and abuse of him and other prisoners, I was, and remain to this day, in a constant state of stress and anxiety. The letters and conversations with prisoners take a toll, as do the phone calls from concerned family members.

If you have a heart and feelings, you are going to be affected by what you are hearing and seeing. Besides the strain of my abolition work, I am constantly traumatized by the daily incidents of police brutality and the scourge of white supremacy permeating our country. I now refuse to watch or read anything that might invoke anxiety or pain. I manage the chronic symptoms of fibromyalgia (chronic pain and fatigue) and press on, but I never thought my life would be impacted until I received a recent diagnosis that seems to be stress-related. Then and only then did I realize that I cannot continue to help others until I have helped myself. I have to be a whole person in health and mental well-being in order to serve the high demands of working in the community. I realized I need self-care. 

What Is Self-Care?

In the last two years, I have heard the word self-care a lot, but I didn’t know much about it, and  I certainly hadn’t practiced it. In an effort to learn, I started to do some research. I found an abundance of information on the topic. Self-care is best described by Dr. Kara Mohr, Ph.D., as “taking care of and honoring your body, mind, and spirit in a way that activates your best self.” There are many forms of self-care — from taking a walk or getting a massage to spending time with yourself. One can look at it as an investment in your well-being. 

I found an amazing website for the Human Rights Resilience Project, which is a collaborative effort that provides resources, research and tools designed to improve resilience and well-being within the human rights community. The site explains that the work undertaken by advocates can often expose them to traumatic material, threats, stressors and violence that can affect well-being. The aim of the project is to meet the urgent need for advocates to have access to education, training and research materials. I found a plethora of information on how to handle the trauma we absorb while living the life of an activist. There are many toolkits and resources to learn from.

Among the toolkits, I was drawn to the “Healing Justice Toolkit“ by Cara Page. This toolkit provides healing justice for before, during and after an action. An excerpt from the toolkit explains: “State violence and systems of oppression traumatize us and our communities, and make it simultaneously impossible for us to fully heal. We have the inherent right to access healing and be free of institutions and systems that explicitly harm and undermine our capacity to live with our full humanity, connection and purpose.” This site is a go-to source for information, and I recommend visiting it for some helpful tools.

In addition to researching online, I posed the question of self-care to other women to find out how they manage and to learn about their processes and methods. I asked each of the women about their use of self-care and its importance to them. Here is what they shared with me.

Iresha Picot, M.Ed, Licensed Behavior Specialist

Iresha is a licensed behavior specialist, therapist, organizer, birth doula and co-editor of “The Color of Hope: People of Color Mental Health Narratives.” When I met Iresha about five years ago, she was organizing for many campaigns and supporting individual cases of incarcerated people namely, Mumia Abu Jamal and the MOVE 9. She also helped me with organizing around the Dallas 6 case involving my son.

Iresha helps individuals to make concrete changes to challenging and problematic behaviors. She and I have had a conversation around the importance of therapists who look like us and are aware of the specific traumas unique to our culture. I appreciate her dedication to the community and the great things she is doing in the field of mental health specifically for the youth and others.

When asked about self-care, Iresha said:

My self-care involves exercising, napping, reading books, taking long baths, giving myself facials, processing things out with friends and journaling. Somebody else’s self-care could be sitting still, making their favorite tea, or painting their nails. Self-care is not one thing.

I define “self-care” as putting the care of yourself first, over anybody or anything else. It’s placing the care of yourself at the core of your work. As activists, and people who do the work for the care of others, this may feel like a selfish act at times, as we are taught that the self is not over the others. But what good is the care for others, if the self is depleted?

Many of us first heard the concept of self-care from the literary black feminist Audre Lorde. She said that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde first said those words over 30 years ago.

Now, self-care has become a popular trending concept on social media, with people posting pictures of themselves doing an array of things, and hash-tagging it as #selfcare. And on some level, that is self-care work. It’s doing the work that brings you a lot of joy and relief from everything else that is going on around you. It’s an act of restoration, and that looks different from person to person.

I have even heard from folks that self-care is not enough, especially if you are mothering children and don’t have the time or finances to partake in anything pleasurable for yourself. That is why we need to also introduce the concept of “community care,” which is essentially where we have others also care for us within their capabilities. If we can do the political work for the community, then the community needs to come together and do the care work for each other.

What’s most important is that practicing self-care has never felt more urgent than in these political and socially troubling times. We have to replenish ourselves as much as possible, in order to show up and do this work. The burnout from care work is a very real thing.

Self-care is constantly evolving for myself. However, I firmly believe that Lorde wanted us to practice a radical self-love. Which means that caring for ourselves means choosing a more empowered self, about where you are and where you want to be, and how you can not only show up for the whole of the community, but more importantly, how you can show up for yourself.

Dana Lomax-Williams, Community Activist

I’ve known Dana Lomax Williams for about 10 years as a formerly incarcerated member of Human Rights Coalition. Dana proudly says, “Being incarcerated is a part of her story, but not the story of her life.” We often discuss the level of burnout and how we never really take time out for ourselves. She is a mother and a wife, who is very active in her church and community. On any given day, she can be on the steps of the state Capitol fighting for lifers, then bailing out moms the next day, or taking a wife to see her incarcerated husband. 

Her level of commitment is shown through her affiliations with organizations and projects. Besides being president of Delaware County Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI), she allies with  RECLAIM, ACLU incarcerated women’s group, SCS Solutions, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and Poor People Economics Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC). She is a huge support for women being released from prison. She often teams up with many of them to campaign for bills regarding solitary confinement, life without parole and incarcerated women’s issues.

I recently heard Dana speak at an event focusing on the Dignity Act in Pennsylvania. This legislation will provide and protect the human rights of incarcerated women. Many of the bills were written and developed by formerly incarcerated women of color and their loved ones. Dana begins her story: “I did what they said I did, but I am not the person they said I was.” 

She describes her arrival at prison and being subjected to a strip search by a male, which she refused. As punishment, she was thrown into solitary. She would be thrown into solitary on other occasions as retaliation to her activism within the walls. When she was transferred to another prison, she was happy to learn that women were no longer being strip searched by male guards. During her incarceration, she was a mentor to prisoners as a certified peer support specialist.

When asked about self-care, she responded: 

I do practice some self-care. I need to practice more. I would say self-care consists of taking time, enjoying you, doing whatever you want to do versus doing it with someone. Self-care to me is resting, eating healthy, getting your mammograms and keeping up your gynecology appointments. Also, going out with friends, skating, reading a book with a glass of wine and traveling. Being stable and secure mentally, physically, and eventually financially, is also self-care.  Self-care is getting my hair, nails and feet done when I can. Just enjoying life.

Selinda Guerrero, Grassroots Community Organizer

I met Selinda Guerrero at the Fight Toxic Prisons convergence where she facilitated several workshops. She began a workshop with an exercise to clear our minds and prepare ourselves for the difficult conversations of prison abolition. That exercise was a form of self-care performed in a community setting and was a great start to a successful conversation.

Selinda is an organizer who heads several grassroots organizations in New Mexico: Save the Kids from Incarceration, Millions For Prisoners and Building Power for Black New Mexico. She is employed as a community organizer for Forward Together Strong Families. 

Selinda says:

I practice self-care as often as possible. I was not always good at this practice but have made it a priority in the last year. I have been a grassroots community organizer for over 20 years, and I am a single mother of six, so most of my life, I have never made myself a priority. With age, wisdom and the guidance of an elder indigenous medicine man, I now make it a priority.

The medicine man told me that I must care for and protect myself so that I can be most effective in my work because I am a medicine woman for the community, and my work is important. This guidance has assisted me in taking inventory of my priorities and creating ways to ensure I am also included.

In addition, I am very fortunate to work for an organization that prioritizes self-care. I took a job a year ago as a field organizer with this phenomenal organization. I have grown substantially through my organization as well. We practice forward stance to help us all take time each week across multiple states to connect and do Taiso movements together. We spend this time supporting each other in the work and acknowledging how we all must hold each other consciously through our work. We practice moving together, calling out together and discussing how we intentionally stay aligned. The practice allows for any staff member to participate because we are conscious that everyone has differing mobility.

Along with the practice of “forward stance” Taiso at work weekly, we have a hammock in our office, adaptable desks so we can work sitting, standing or even lying in the hammock. Our office is adaptable to multiple schedules and pacing.

I have also learned how to take time for myself intentionally every week. I schedule this time typically on Fridays or Saturdays. I can use this time to write, read, watch movies, sleep or go out with friends. Often, it is a combination of all of these things. I also try to be intentional about writing in my journal about how I spent my time.

We as a family have a practice where we discuss “the best thing that happened today.” Each family member reflects on something that made them happy or was important. I also count time with my children as self-care because just sitting and talking with them brings me joy. I have three adult children now so as a family we have game nights where we come together and play family games where we can laugh and talk together.

I am spiritual, not religious. So I feel a deep connection with the earth and ancestors. The medicine man taught me practices of protecting myself through my work also. Rituals of burning sage and cedar and holding my stones are important. Meditation and water are also places I find solitude and healing. Water and fire are healing practices we have access to and have been used for generations with communities of color. Fire is important and can be used with a fire pit or something as simple as burning sage, or candles can help bring peace and can help with getting set and thinking.

A larger-scale example would be community rituals. In New Mexico, we have one called burning of zozobra. People are invited to write down their worries and attach them to a “boogie man” that is then burned with all the community. Ritual with fire have been methods of healing for many generations.

Water is another medicine we should all have access to. It can be used like fire in many forms. Soaking in a warm bath, or if you have access to natural waters, is a fantastic way to ground and care for your body and mind. Simply listening to water flow is healing and grounding. The curandera (medicine woman in Chicano culture) says that the Earth gives us all we need to take care of ourselves. Our mental health is the center of all our healing, and that is why self-care is critical. 

As an organizer, and someone deeply connected to my people I understand that in order to care for others’ humanity, I must care for my own. An elder told me my work will mean nothing if I am not leading by example of how I want our people to be cared for. That has always stuck with me. As long as I am leading with love and care of not only myself but my people, I have nothing to worry about and continue to be effective.

The other piece that is important with self-care that I admittedly have mostly struggled with is pacing. I am a “busy body” — I always want to be everywhere all the time. I have had to ground myself in pacing so that I can be effective. Really taking inventory of my time and energy has been important in setting my own pace. I understand that if I burn out or feel overwhelmed and tired I will not be my best self for my people. I keep a journal notebook and a handwritten calendar so that I can track my capacity.

Indigenous groups in New Mexico from the tribes have created a movement called “healing justice.” They use this workshop for people doing movement work to help us understand and be intentional about self-care. They use some probing questions that are very important for all of our work, and those are:

How did our ancestors take care of themselves and each other through difficult times of unrest?

How do we take care of ourselves and our community during these times?

How do we want our children to care for themselves and others in future generations?

What I Learned About Self-Care

From research and conversations, I gathered some key points on self-care. It seems that a lot of activists feel guilty for not giving every moment of their time. For that, we must accept that we cannot fix everything and that some of our work will take time.

Therapy is not a bad word. It is OK to seek therapy. You cannot help others if your mental health or well-being is malfunctioning. Likewise, we need to make sure our body is healthy and functioning properly.

I learned that you can enjoy self-care alone in your solitude or in a community setting. Organizing is a heavy workload, so share the work. Also, it’s important to reach out to the community to assist us or be a part of our self-care.

Overall, the most important factor is to make yourself the number one priority. Give yourself time and take time for yourself in order to be the best you.